The number of people whose deaths are linked to Colorado cantaloupes contaminated with listeria continues to rise, and shippers and others in the produce industry report severe aftershocks in markets.
But U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows shipments of cantaloupes have not slowed, and prices have not dropped significantly or, in some cases, at all.
Through Oct. 4, the outbreak had not affected movement of cantaloupes nationwide.
From Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, 49.3 million pounds of cantaloupes were shipped in the U.S., comparable to last year at the same time.
For the week ending Sept. 24, shipments were comparable both to the week ending Oct. 1 and to the same week the year before.
F.o.b. prices were slightly lower than the year before the week of Oct. 4. The USDA reported prices of $6-7.50 for 1/2 cartons of cantaloupes 9-12 from Arizona, down from $7-9 last year at the same time.
Prices in the weeks since the recall fell from a peak of $8.50 Sept. 20. A similar peak was recorded about the same time in 2010. In the week following the recall, cantaloupe prices actually rose from $7-7.50 to $8-8.50.
At retail, meanwhile, cantaloupe ad prices actually rose in the week ending Sept. 30. The average ad price for a whole melon was $2.21, up from $2.06 the week before and $1.97 the year before, according to the USDA.
“I haven’t heard of anything that has affected sales at all,” said Craig Wilson, vice president of quality assurance and food safety for Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp., which did not receive any melons from Jensen Farms.
The fallout from the Jensen Farms outbreak hasn’t been as bad as other outbreaks, said Trevor Suslow, an extension specialist with the University of California-Davis.
“There’s certainly an economic impact, but I’ve heard from shippers that this isn’t quite as bad they thought it would be,” he said. “This is a horrific set of circumstances, with a high death rate, but in the grand scale, these are very isolated incidents.”
As far as the outbreak’s effects on markets, Suslow said it’s hard to separate the outbreak itself from other factors that could be influencing price.
But cantaloupe shippers like Steve Patricio, president of Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., say the outbreak has had a serious effect on cantaloupe markets, thanks in large part to the media’s overreaction.
“Nearly a month after potentially contaminated melons were withdrawn from commerce, the media is generating headlines and creating unprecedented hysteria about the safety of cantaloupes,” Patricio said. “Not only is this doing nothing to protect public health, but it’s severely damaging California and other cantaloupe growing areas that have been the leading food safety activists for the last 20 years.”
Thousands of harvest workers and support personnel are seeing their season cut short by three weeks because of the outbreak, Patricio said.
“Three weeks may not sound long to a year-round employee, but to someone who feeds their family by working seven days a week for the 15-week season, it’s a 20% pay cut.”
Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop LLC, Barrington, Ill., said that despite signs in his local Jewel store making clear that the retailer’s cantaloupes did not come from Jensen Farms, fruit was not moving.
In some outbreaks, it’s relatively easy to contain the damage, Bishop said.
The Jensen Farms outbreak, however, is one that has worked on the public imagination in a way that is stubbornly impervious to facts.
“It’s having a crushing effect,” he said. “I wish I knew how to pull out of a tailspin like this, but I just don’t see it.”